Silver Paint and Cigarettes

The man’s face was painted silver. Thick, shiny silver. He wore a black jacket over a flannel shirt, and he had a Saints ball cap pulled low on his head. Blue jeans, tennis shoes. He leaned against a wall and took a long drag on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long stream, and a low sigh exited his lips as he stood there. Then I noticed that his hands were painted silver too.

I leaned over to Mike. “Look!” I spoke in an excited whisper. The man took another long drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and then he began walking down the block, away from us. Mike took brief notice, then looked back down at his phone, disinterested. But I was fascinated by this man.

“He must have been one of those guys who does street performances. He paints himself silver and stands there not moving like a statue and people stand in front of him and take pictures and give him tips and stuff. He’s one of those guys.”

Mike used his phone to navigate us to our destination, a little supper club space a few blocks off of Bourbon Street. We entered an old building with sparse decor. A band sat right inside the entrance, playing old blues songs, and the perfect mix of the percussion, the clarinet, the bass, and the piano arrested my senses. The man at the piano crooned softly into a microphone, his voice reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. (But somehow in this setting it made me think more of King Louis in Disney’s the Jungle Book). My foot started tapping as I surveyed the room. A simple bar with a bartender named Jory who was dressed like some kind of 1950s pin-up girl as she deftly mixed drinks for the small crowd. A few scattered tables and stools with six or so people spread among them, all listening to the music. No one had their phones out, and that struck me almost more than anything.

“Oh, this is perfect,” I whispered to myself. Just a few blocks away there were hundreds of people swarming up and down the street in vast crowds, tripping over each other, half-drunk. They clamored from bar to bar, shop to shop, on the street full of singers, crooners, and musicians, with a different club every thirty feet, each with its own oyster or crawfish specialities, its own drinks, its own music with horns and drums and lead singers. But this place, with this handful of people, just far enough of the beaten path, was somehow perfect.

I ordered a drink from the bar, something with rum and gin and ginger beer and cherry juice and orange peel, and as Jory began shaking it all together in a metal cup, the band started a new number. The piano shifted into the upper octaves, the bass thumped out a deep resonant strain, and the percussion shifted into some wood-block-tapping sound. I turned as the clarinet began its song, and my spirit soared with it. I took my drink and joined Mike at the table.

“This. Is. Perfect.” I repeated with emphasis, and he laughed.

“Happy 40th birthday vacation weekend,” he smiled, gripping my hand, and I laughed. We clinked our drinks together, and the clarinet soared around our heads as we sipped in celebration.

One song later, I looked up to see a cop ride by on horseback, clip-clopping through the French Quarter a literal head and shoulders above everyone else.

I leaned in to Mike. “Where else would you seeĀ that?

He twisted his lips up the way he does when he’s about to make a joke. Banter is one of the very best parts of our relationship. “Canada,” he replied.

“No, they ride moose there.” I wiggled my eyebrows.

Mike rolled his eyes. “You can’t tame a moose.”

“Well, I did,” I stated, then stroked his hand affectionately, like I was petting a dog.

“Hey! I’m not a moose!”

He jabbed at me as I simply took another sip of my drink. “Aw, I made the moose upset. Look at his cute little waaaaaaah-tlers.”

Mike broke, laughing, and the singer started crooning again. There was a growl in his voice, and it made me want to snarl in the very best ways.

We went for a walk after that, weaving around the side streets of the French Quarter, with its small and beautiful homes, its waving flags, its low lights. We passed no less than six gay clubs and fifteen supper clubs, and people were crammed into every one of them, watching the Saints play football. We heard whoops and shouts and laughter, and we held hands as we walked.

We ended up back at the same club, wanting just a bit more, and saw the band was on break. Jory waved at us as we arrived, outside on her cigarette break, and I smiled. Taking a seat at the same table. I watched the four men from the band at the bar. Two wore straw hats. The singer had dreadlocks. I wondered what their lives were like. They had wives and children, day jobs, families, and here they were on a Thursday night playing incredible music for this tiny crowd for no other reason than that they loved it. Between sets, they checked text messages, had idle conversation, had a quick drink. At the end of the night, they’d go back home by bike or in a cab, and they’d sleep before their alarms went off for the workday in the morning.

Soon after, Mike and I headed back to our Airbnb, tired from the long flight and the time change, the walking and the humidity. And I thought of that man, the statue performer. I thought of him posing with drunk people in photos for tips. The put on his jeans, his jacket, his hat, then snuck around a corner for a cigarette break, still in his silver paint. I thought of the silver paint from his lips on the cigarette, of the silver swirls that must permanently stain around his shower drain, of the canister of silver body and face paint that must stack up on the side of his bathroom, of the cigarette smoke rising slowly in the air before disappearing. Evanescent. Just like me.

Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

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Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.